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3 Fears That Are Strangling Your Career Options

Fears destroy your poetntial.

I don’t understand why anyone would get their PhD and stay in academia anymore.

Logically, that is. 

Logically, any PhD can see how postdocs and PhD students are exploited by the system as cheap labor. 

Many of them go as far as working for free once they get their PhD, or they get into postdocs that don’t allow overtime, don’t contribute to their retirement, and pay them peanuts

That’s when self-justification occurs …

“I’m doing noble work” 

“I’m doing important work” 

“I can still be a professor” 

“An adjunct professorship is a real professorship” 

“Everyone is suffering right now” 

“My career isn’t really at a dead end”

 “My PI wants what’s best for me and isn’t using me”.

Please. This is utter nonsense and if you’re telling yourself any of these lies it’s time to wake up. 

Emotionally, however, it makes sense that PhDs who have been isolated in academia for a half decade, a decade or longer would freeze when it comes to their job search.

Emotionally, it’s understandable that PhDs who have been indoctrinated to believe that being an author on an obscure academic paper will get them tenure or get them hired or do anything for them in the real world would not invest in their job search or anything other non-academic pursuit. 

PhDs, like everyone, are driven by their emotions. Most just fail to realize it because they’ve been trained so rigorously on avoiding emotionally-driven confirmation bias in their work. 

Yet, their emotions are hard at work, suppressing their job search related activity levels. 

Sometimes PhDs let their emotions mildly influence them, other times they wildly influence them. Once fears take hold – it’s game over. 

What fears? 

The fear of leaving academia for the unknown. The fear of investing a lot of time and energy into an industry job search that doesn’t pay off right away, or doesn’t pay off at all. 

Fear Is A Bad PhD Advisor 

You thought your academic advisor had bad advice for your career? 

Wait until fears start advising you. I’ve seen it time and time again from PhDs before they join our Cheeky Scientist Association training programs …desperation. 

That’s the best advice fears have for you: Be. Desperate.

 The second best advice: Do. Nothing. 

There are hundreds of thousands of PhDs around the world heeding this advice right now, one way or the other. 

I just graduated and forgot to spend any time whatsoever on my job search. I know! I’ll spam hundreds of people on LinkedIn asking them to help me get hired. 

I’ll talk about myself in the messages I send out and attach my resume and ask them to look at it. Brilliant! …not. 

Or, I’ll upload hundreds and hundreds of poorly crafted resumes to job postings online and hope for the best. 

Even better, I’ll highlight my years of experience and all my technical skills that I think sound impressive (oops …I didn’t realize my academic technical skills were outdated in industry and that advanced robotics or BSc or MSc techs were already doing them). 

This is your job search strategy? 

Spray and pray

Upload and beg? 

Trial and error. 

Here’s the problem with trial and error in your job search. There’s a cost. 

Did you know when you apply to a job online and your application is considered but rejected, you may never be notified but on the backend of the employers applicant tracking system, you’ll be marked as having been considered and eliminated from consideration for any other role at the company for 6-12 months depending on the company. 

Oops. I guess you should’ve researched what to do before just trying stuff. I guess you should have got the training you needed. 

Any awakening, frustration, confusion or discomfort you’re feeling after reading the words above is healthy. 

Why? Because these emotions will drive you to take action to find the right answers and to change your job search behavior for the better. 

What’s NOT helpful are the fear-based emotions I’m going to talk about below. 

3 Fears That Suffocate Every PhD’s Career Options

Behavioral psychologists point to two types of fears that we as humans all have: fear of failure and fear of fatigue. 

Fear of failure is the fear you feel, consciously or less consciously when you take on a challenging task that you may not succeed at. The risk is rejection, loss of resources, increased scrutiny and pain. 

For PhDs (thanks to higher education), this fear of failure most often manifests as a fear of embarrassment.

The embarrassment of looking stupid. 

The embarrassment of having fewer accolades than another PhD. 

The embarrassment of your entire academic career being a mistake. 

Fear of fatigues is the fear you feel when you start investing a lot of time and energy and other resources (or refuse to invest them) into something that may not pay off. It’s the fear you feel when you start getting tired after a long day of work, after a long hike, or after a tough training session at the gym. It’s the fear of death, or using all your biological resources without recovery. For PhDs this fear most often manifests as the fear of the unknown and the fear of waste. 

1. Fear of embarrassment. 

You would think this fear would be trained out of PhDs during their academic work, but the opposite tends to happen. 

The often repeated quote, “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small” has never been more true. 

Whether originally said by Henry Kissinger, Wallace Sayre, or Charles Frankel, I can’t think of a better mantra for why PhDs become so hesitant in their job search. 

They’re afraid of their efforts being scrutinized. Not only by others, but by their own selves. 

In academia, we are taught to be highly critical of information and data. 

Unfortunately, this often bleeds into being critical of ourselves and other people. 

As PhDs, we’re all in academia, overworked, underpaid and not nearly as far along in our careers as we thought we’d be. 

So, we push others down because it’s easier than stepping outside of the ivory tower mold by taking our career into our own hands and aggressively doing after an industry job. 

2. Fear of the unknown 

PhDs deal in uncertainty, but only when it comes to their work. They are tested rigorously from their first year in graduate school to logically test unlimited amounts of ambiguity in the natural world. They live in the unknown of their fields and drive hard daily to discover puzzle pieces that will help them answer tightly defined questions. 

Every human being (even PhDs) needs both uncertainty and certainty in their life to feel mentally balanced. 

The person whose relationships, finances, and/or health are highly stable is often able to take on more risk in their career, while the person whose career is highly stable is often able to take on more risk in their relationships, or perhaps financially, or perhaps in their health. 

This is why so many PhDs cling onto intense levels of certainty in their relationships, health and/or their career status (even if it’s a very poor career status, e.g. postdoc). 

They deal with so much uncertainty in their work that they need these areas of certainty to feel balanced. 

This need for certainty (or fear of the unknown) holds these PhDs back from ever fully executing an industry job search, which, at times, can be highly uncertain.

3. Fear of waste 

Most PhDs I work with can’t stand waste. 

They hate the thought of investing heavily into a project outside of their academic work without a guarantee that it will pay off. 

This is completely absurd because as PhDs we’ve had to compile obscene amounts of this kind of waste in terms of our thesis work to graduate. 

Think of all the experiments, tests and projects you completed that resulted in negative findings…how monstrous would this pile of waste be

But it wasn’t really a waste to you, was it

You rationalized that even negative findings helped you figure out which direction to head in your thesis work. 

Yet, when it comes to your job search and overall career, you are terrified to veer off the beaten path because beating a new path takes a lot of energy. 

You can’t bear the thought of giving intense amounts of effort to a job search unless you know it will pay off but, by not fully committing yourself to your job search, you guarantee it will never pay off. You can’t dabble in an industry job search and get hired. 

You have to ravenously go after the job you want and cast aside any waste you accumulate along the way. 

Document and learn from any negative findings in your job search. 

Otherwise, forget about it. 

Want to get hired faster. 

Do more, not less. 

Double your rate of waste. 

Concluding Remarks

A job search is unforgiving. It doesn’t care about you or your fears. It will make you believe you’re making progress only to close every door you thought was open, just to test your resolve. The good news is that your job search is not a life or death matter. You will not die of shame after getting rejected by an employer. Your hard work will eventually pay off, no matter how exhausted you become along the way. It might hurt your precious PhD ego to hear “no” after “no” when you thought getting hired would be easy, but that’s a good thing. Over time, you’ll be conditioned to strengthen your resolve when you face a temporary failure in your job search. You won’t be embarrassed. You won’t feel the need to posture. You won’t brood for a week before applying to another job. You’ll simply learn from what happened and immediately move on.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published two bestselling books with Wiley and his methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

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